How We’re Counting Lives Saved

Update: On Nov. 9, 2017, the more than 1,200 shelters in the Million Cat Challenge estimated they'd saved 1 million more cats not just within the five years of the Challenge, but more than a year early.

As you can read below, we have always based the number on the counter on actual lives saved for previous calendar years and estimates for the current calendar year. Each year, when we've received data totals from Challenge shelters, we found they under-estimated the number of lives saved, and that was as true in 2017 as in previous years.

When the final numbers for 2017 came in and all the data were tallied: Challenge shelters saved 1,148,129 more cats in four years.

The original goal of the Million Cat Challenge was to save the lives of one million cats in North America over a five-year period, from the beginning of 2014 through the end of 2018. At the campaign level, we have measured lives saved by two methods: reduction in euthanasia and increase in live outcomes. These two numbers have been tracked seperately but reported jointly as we documented our progress towards one million.

Because the precursor to the Million Cat Challenge was issued in late 2012 and again in early 2013, 2012 was chosen as the baseline year for shelters that joined the Challenge in the early days. This recognizes the progress made by “early adopter” shelters, which help mentor shelters joining the main campaign.

Shelters that joined the campaign after 2014 use the calendar year prior to their registration as their baseline.

Data collected to document life-saving success are feline intake, euthanasia, and live outcome numbers (not rates) for the baseline year and each calendar year of participation. The National Federation of Humane Societies’ definitions (PDF) from the Basic Data Matrix is used for each of these terms as follows:

Feline intake:
All live intake to shelter except “owner intended/requested euthanasia” and foster return

Feline live outcome:
The sum of all permanent live outcomes including adoption, returned to owner, transferred to another agency (shelter or rescue), return to field, and other live outcomes (e.g. barn cat program); excluding foster.

Feline euthanasia:
All euthanasia except “owner intended/requested euthanasia”

At enrollment, data is collected for the original baseline year of 2012 along with data for the previous calendar year and estimates for the current calendar year. We love it when participating shelters use their estimates to challenge and inspire themselves as they work towards greater life-saving success. At the beginning of each year, participating shelters report actual values for the previous calendar year and update their estimates for the new year.

Each year, the Million Cat Count is initially based on estimates but is corrected when final calendar year values are reported by participants. No individual shelter data will ever be made public – numbers are only reported in aggregate.

Each year, live outcome and euthanasia for the current calendar year is compared to baseline and the higher of the two numbers chosen to count toward the millions. For instance, if a shelter decreased euthanasia by 1000 by decreasing intake by 500 (e.g., due to a successful “Alternatives to Intake” program) as well as by increasing live outcomes by 500 (e.g., by removing barriers to adoption or developing a Return to Field program), then 1,000 would be added to the count for that shelter.

There is no minimum for participation. If a shelter is able to reduce euthanasia by even one cat, that is an achievement to be celebrated as part of the Million Cat Challenge.
If a shelter is able to reduce euthanasia by even one cat, that is an achievement to be celebrated as part of the Million Cat Challenge.
Shelters that are already euthanizing few or no cats are also welcome to participate in the Million Cat Challenge. For shelters where the number of live outcomes is rising (e.g., as a result of increased flow-through capacity), this number will be added to the count.

There are also shelters where intake is decreasing, often due to years of successful community efforts. As a result, live outcomes may decline proportionate to intake while euthanasia stays approximately steady at some minimal level. This represents a goal to which we all aspire: a decrease in the number of unwanted and abandoned cats in the community as a whole. Although their data will not contribute to the Million Cat Count, these shelters are also welcome to join the challenge.

Shelters at every stage of progress can find value in at least some of the Five Initiatives, and each participant through their experience and expertise helps the whole group move forward toward our lifesaving goal.

Limitations of data collection methodology

We recognize this method of data collection is not precise. Although specific case studies will be developed describing the impact of individual initiatives at specific shelters, it will not be possible to differentiate which progress results from which initiative on a broad scale.

Some progress in reducing euthanasia or increasing adoptions reported by participating shelters will inevitably be related to factors other than the five core Challenge initiatives (such as increased access to spay/neuter services or community-based trap-neuter-return programs).

Conversely, some societal and demographic factors may blunt the beneficial impact of MCC initiatives implemented by shelters. The reduction by one million is an absolute rather than per capita figure. The U.S. population is certain to grow over the five years of the campaign, requiring a relatively greater reduction in per capita euthanasia to achieve improvement over 2012. Other demographic factors, or loss of community based programs such as low-cost spay/neuter or TNR could also blunt the positive impact of MCC initiatives.

Finally, some shelters may utilize resources available through the MCC but decline to participate in the Challenge, resulting in under-reporting of actual lives saved.

These issues notwithstanding, we have always firmly believed the initiatives of the MCC would save the lives of at least a million cats over five years. And we always knew that even a million lives represented only a fraction of the potential success contained in the MCC initiatives combined with the hard work and innovation of the leaders, staff, and volunteers in shelters today. We continue to be thrilled and inspired to see our counter tick ever higher, first over a million, then over two, with more added every day.